Confused by 5G news headlines? Why you are not alone


Why did 5G news have to be so confusing?

Do you like abstract paintings? Such paintings are inherently open to interpretation. Different people perceive different things, and most uninitiated observers may just see a ‘messy’ picture. But there is logic and design behind – at least some – abstract paintings.

This is the case with 5G too. Following vague news and misleading announcements, 5G currently resembles an abstract painting. But the ambiguous or ‘messy’ 5G picture can become clearer if we look into 5 key areas of confusion.

The trials blur

The tsunami of news about 5G trials has mainly focused on the 5G new radio (NR). With standardization pending, experimental radio interfaces have been used that may not even make it into the 3GPP standards (the initial 5G spec is due in June 2018). There is also talk about launching 5G in the year of its standardization, which sounds aggressive to say the least. Such news may give the impression that 5G is a radio centric standard, to be deployed on new spectrum only – in particular, mmWave bands (around and above 30GHz) – as a hotspot, fixed wireless broadband technology. But this impression would be inaccurate and not do justice to the true nature and potential of 5G, as described for example by NGMN.

The imitation game

How many times have you come across a 5G news headline that is really about 4G evolution or Wi-Fi? Yes, we have seen this before, with both 2G and 3G. The efforts to link to the latest and greatest technology are not surprising. However, artificial references do more harm than good, and should be shunned. Similarly, introducing a variety of .5 or .9 (or even .75) versions to decrease the ‘generation gap’ can be confusing. As a friend once commented, “If HSPA+ is 3.9G, does that make HSPA+ around 10% less capable than 4G?” Clarifying the full capabilities of 4G (up to 3GPP Release 14) and its differences from 5G is an essential exercise.

The vacuum fallacy

So, we should just concentrate on 5G and overlook other technologies such as 4G or Wi-Fi, right? Absolutely not. Similar to previous Gs, 5G will not operate in a vacuum. To begin with, existing base station locations are likely 5G site candidates. Also, 5G in non-standalone mode is going to use the LTE Evolved Packet Core (EPC). More importantly, with few exceptions, customers’ 5G network experience will require fallback mechanisms to 4G and Wi-Fi, to maintain an acceptable level of mobile service. In summary, the interoperability of 5G with other networks and the performance of these networks should not be ignored.

The all-brand-new illusion

5G emphasizes various significant network concepts such as softwarization and virtualization, automation and orchestration, (big data) analytics, antenna array beam-forming, etc. While essential to 5G, these concepts are not 5G specific. For example, many service providers have started virtualizing their mobile networks, mainly focusing on the core network (vEPC, vIMS) and gradually moving to the more complex domain of radio access (vRAN). Such initiatives also require investments in new network infrastructure, for example small cells or fiber. By the time 5G is launched in most countries, many of its innate components will have already benefitted 4G users.

The launch enigma

5G has attracted attention as an enabler for exciting use cases. But the – why, when, what, where, how – 5G launch enigma must be solved using objective business criteria. It is essential for each service provider to identify and prioritize what has real market relevance. Many use cases could be supported by other technologies (e.g. 4G) or business models (e.g. partnerships with Wi-Fi providers). If 5G must be launched, service providers should note the 5G standardization plan and consider the technical and non-technical lessons learned from past Gs, including initial technology maturity and device availability. In summary, a delayed launch would typically be preferable to a disastrous launch.

What do you think? To learn more about 5G, contact

Image is Composition VII, by Wassily Kandinsky

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